My Biggest Failure
“What’s been your biggest missional failure?” That’s a question I asked many respected, experienced church planters during a series of interviews in 2014. Some chuckled as they shared a personal embarrassment; others told laugh-out-loud stories of tactical mistakes.
But one response was different from the rest. It was totally unexpected, and has stuck with me for over three years now: the pastor became stone-faced sober and said, “My biggest failure by a country mile was berating God’s people to mission, as opposed to letting the gospel win their hearts, by the Spirit, for mission. I hammered them with the obligations of the gospel, without winning their hearts with the glorious things that God has done for them. They could only sustain living missionally for either short bursts of time, or for a longer time but then they eventually gave up thru weariness. Because Christ wasn’t continually refreshing their hearts. That was by far my biggest fail.”
As church planters and pastors, mission is woven into the very fabric of our roles and our lives. We are charged with loving neighbors; we spend our days and weeks trying to “go, make disciples”; we long to see our cities redeemed. And we spend endless hours pouring ourselves out to those ends. After all, one of the most known verses in the Bible is in Acts’ opening scene, where Jesus’ commands his first followers: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth…” (1:8). That’s our life, right, church planters?
But that’s not actually the first command Jesus gives in that paragraph.
The first command in the book of Acts, which is rarely even spoken of, is in verse 4, “[Jesus] ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father” – which, he makes clear, is “the Holy Spirit” who comes upon us with the only power that can make our “going” and our “witnessing” possible (1:4-8, italics added).
In other words, Jesus’ first marching orders, to the small band of apostles and disciples on whom the fate of global Christianity rested, were, “Stop.” “Wait.” “Don’t go.”
It seems shocking – but the point is one that many of us, who love our neighbors and feel the urgency of God’s mission, need to heed. We cannot go; we cannot accomplish anything; we cannot rightly witness – if God doesn’t show up, empower us, and do what only God can do. Here’s the beauty: God promises us his Spirit in Acts 1, and in Acts 2, God fulfills that promise. The Spirit comes at Pentecost, people begin getting saved, and then God (through both human choice and human suffering) disperses his church throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and well beyond. God does charge us to make disciples, but only after we wait on him.
For some of us, that’s a needed breath of fresh air. For some, it’s a humbling truth. For some, it’s a lifeline as we feel like we’re drowning. Let’s learn from the interviewee’s warning. Let’s rest in God’s Word for ourselves and for those in our churches. Let’s be about the heart, the gospel, the “glorious things God has done,” and the Spirit more than the obligations, the actions, the berating, and even the “going” itself. Jesus sends us to be witnesses, but if we go without reliance, dependence, and the filling that only his Spirit can offer, we’ve missed the point completely.
This is my prayer for each of us: that our participation in God’s mission would be patient, prayerful, joy-filled, and free – even restful(!), because our role is simply obedience, as we wait on the Lord and follow his lead.